WASHINGTON (AP) — Scandals dogging President Barack Obama are a political gift to Republicans, who could use some good luck after recent election losses. It's not clear, however, how Republicans can best capitalize on Democrats' woes.
The White House's scandal problems offer a big, enticing target. Congressional Republicans have ripped into the ousted head of the Internal Revenue Service, who apologized last week for the tax agency's heightened scrutiny of tea party affiliates and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Republicans have been equally indignant in ongoing inquiries into the administration's role in last September's terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four U.S. officials, including an ambassador.
Another controversy now dogging the White House — the Justice Department's secret seizure of Associated Press phone records in a security leak investigation — has thus far stirred less emotion and partisanship in Washington.
Taken together, Republicans say, these three controversies portray a rapaciously political and inept administration. That could be a powerful message in next year's congressional elections, and perhaps in the 2016 presidential race.
"I think people are beginning to think, 'Is anybody running the government up there?'" said Congressman Tom Cole, a close ally of House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner. "Incompetence, detachment, lack of oversight. I think the damage is going to be real and lasting for the president."
Last November's election dynamics that led to Obama's re-election and Democratic gains in Congress complicate the picture, however, and some Republican leaders are urging a bit of restraint in exploiting the White House's new weaknesses. Party leaders wince when their more zealous colleagues talk of trying to impeach Obama and remove him from office.
Some Republicans would like to deny Obama a legacy-enhancing prize like passing an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws, one of Obama's biggest second-term goals.
But party strategists say Republicans may need immigration reform more than Democrats do. Some conservatives, like rising star Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, are urging their party to embrace an overhaul, including a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.
Hispanics are America's largest minority group and one that is steadily making up a bigger share of the electorate. They overwhelmingly backed Obama in both his elections, and the trend might worsen for Republicans if they don't show greater interest in Latinos' concerns. For many, that includes major changes to immigration laws.
In the end, the scandals — titillating as they are inside Washington — may have surprisingly little impact on immigration legislation and other bills in Congress. Boehner, asked Thursday how the Republicans' apparent momentum might influence legislation, said: "I don't expect that it will."
The controversies have managed to reignite the limited-government tea party movement, whose influence in 2012 had waned compared to its muscular role in 2010. Tea party groups have found new political fuel, especially in the IRS scandal that largely centers on such conservative groups, and are flooding mail boxes with fiery fundraising letters and renewed calls to arms.
Democrats hope conservatives overplay their hands. Even if tea party activists boost Republican turnout in next year's nonpresidential elections, they could complicate the Republican Party's need to woo a wider audience to win presidential elections in 2016 and beyond. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
A Quinnipiac University poll this spring found that 24 percent of Americans view the tea party movement favorably, and 43 percent view it unfavorably.
Democrats love to remind Republicans of their partisan excess in 1998, when the House's impeachment of President Bill Clinton for trying to cover up an affair with an intern struck millions of Americans as political overkill. Republicans lost House seats that year, costing Speaker Newt Gingrich his leadership post. The Senate acquitted the president.
Boehner and other party leaders are keenly aware that Republicans can overdo their attacks, and even build sympathy for Obama, if their criticisms appear nakedly political or not supported by facts, said Cole, the Republican congressman.
Congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia said he hopes the scandals will increase public attention on Congress, enabling Republicans to highlight an agenda he thinks voters will embrace.
"The scandals, they're not your ticket to the dance," said Kingston, who is running for the Senate in a crowded Republican field. "They are a reason to have people look at your party. And then, if you have good private-sector job ideas, and balancing the budget, then I think people will vote for you."
Associated Press writer Charles Babington contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington.